Death to re-keying (but not yet?)
Systems integration writ small
Workshop Re-keying data is responsible for thousands of errors and thousands of wasted hours. It doesn't have to be this way, but many organisations are put off automating their systems by the daunting task of trying to integrate everything.
Big integration projects do have a nasty habit of running over budget and missing deadlines: ask any government department. But maybe you don’t have to build the ultimate one-touch, paperless integrated enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management (ERP/CRM) system.
Just tackling users’ biggest headaches, the points where they have to re-key endless volumes of paperwork, can make a big difference.
“The massive integration projects of the past, for example to implement EDI [electronic data interchange], were phenomenally expensive and complex,” says Sage CRM evangelist David Beard.
“But with open protocols and web services, an end to re-keying is a realistic aim. It opens up to smaller businesses the efficiencies which only larger companies previously had.”
Oriental food supplier Loon Fung's standalone electronic point of sale (EPOS) system was generating a great deal of duplication and hard work for staff at all levels. The back office was using the Sage Line 100 accounting system and users spent many hours re-keying data from a never-ending mountain of paper.
Impress Solutions recommended an upgrade from Sage Line 100 to Sage 200, with the additional retail module to support the back office and Sage POS for the cash-and-carry and retail operations across Loon Fung's four stores. The solution integrated 26 tills, plus servers, scanners, hand-held terminals, weighing scales and chip-and-pin terminals.
As similar situation was occurring at Press Metals UK, a distributor of largely tailor-made extruded aluminium products. The company used a mish-mash of inventory and accounting systems with Excel spreadsheets and relied heavily on manual re-keying.
"An end to re-keying is a realistic aim"
Press Metals also installed Sage 200 Financials and Commercials and a number of bespoke elements written by Sage reseller CPiO, including back-to-back purchase order processing.
It's tempting to think of ERP systems as there only to encapsulate core data, but meaningful integration includes processes as well as data.
One aspect of this is opening up the ERP system to all the users in the organisation who will find it useful. Dale Vile of Freeform Dynamics has discussed this on The Reg before.
“Whether this means bringing new departments or divisions online or providing simple portal-based access to occasional users, direct access to ERP can translate into a significant reduction in overheads and cycle times,” says Dale.
The claims game
Karen Ainley, Sage 200 product manager, cites the simple example of expenses forms, which often have to be filled out by employees and re-keyed by accounts staff with access to the financials system.
“By providing a web front end, anyone in the company can file expenses directly into the ERP financials module,” she says.
Of course, the capability has to exist within the package for web services to be written and added in this manner. Licences for all these new users can also be an issue.
“The licensing of ERP used to prohibit this, but for this kind of front-end functionality we don’t require you to have a full user licence,” says Ainley.
A common complaint from users is that they have to look in several places to find out what's going on and then re-key data from one system to another. “Why can't it all be in one place?” they ask.
Often, data is transferred by cutting and pasting into Excel spreadsheets. These then become a substitute for the original data and the number of sources of data multiply. Many an organisation has tried and failed to tackle this by outlawing MS Office applications and deploying a monolithic monstrosity.
The secret is not to ban Office but – to use Microsoft's own phrase – to embrace and extend. The ERP or CRM solution should enable work flows across other applications that the business uses – such as MS Office.
“We have to make it easy to integrate with the products that are central to the business,” says Ainley.
This requires plug-ins for Office and other applications which lead back to the ERP/CRM database.
For example, plastic extrusion company Boomer Industries went from an unintegrated CRM system down the route of integrating as much as possible with a Sage 1000 system.